By JEROME PUGMIRE and GRAHAM DUNBAR
PARIS (AP) — Lionel Messi’s next stop could mark his return to Barcelona. Or he can make a hugely profitable move to Saudi Arabia. A stay at Paris Saint-Germain is the most unlikely outcome.
Speculation became increasingly feverish on Tuesday about where the World Cup winner from Argentina will play next season. Inter Miami in Major League Soccer is also chasing the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner.
French media have reported that Messi has a verbal deal with an unnamed Saudi club, a move that would put him back in the same league as Cristiano Ronaldo. But football transfer gossip specialist Fabrizio Romano was quick to inform his 14.6 million followers on Twitter that a decision will not be made until after the season.
Both Barcelona and Al Hilal clearly want Messi, who turns 36 next month and also wants to continue playing for Argentina. South American qualification for the 2026 World Cup begins in September, with Argentina playing Ecuador at home.
Messi’s trip to Saudi Arabia last week – and subsequent suspension by PSG for unauthorized absence – has reignited talks that he will play in the Middle Eastern country if he leaves the French capital as expected. A French media report claimed that Messi has agreed to a huge deal with an unnamed Saudi club worth at least 500 million euros ($548 million).
PSG declined to comment when asked by The Associated Press if there is an agreement for Messi to leave the club.
Messi was linked last month with a move to Riyadh-based Saudi club Al Hilal, the same city where Ronaldo’s team, Al Nassr, is based.
Messi played Ronaldo in an exhibition game in Riyadh in January, pitting Qatar-owned PSG against a combined team of Al Nassr and Al Hilal. Ronaldo’s arrival has already boosted Saudi Arabia’s football profile in the Middle East in a regional rivalry sparked by Qatar’s hosting of last year’s World Cup.
If Messi plays Ronaldo, it would mean even more to the country as Saudi Arabia prepares for the Club World Cup in December.
Messi returned to training with PSG this week after the club lifted his suspension following the promotion trip to Saudi Arabia. He missed training on Monday, the day after PSG’s 3-1 defeat to Lorient. The club announced his suspension last Tuesday.
Messi subsequently apologized to the club and his teammates for traveling without PSG’s permission.
Messi joined PSG on a two-year contract after leaving against his will against financially stricken Barcelona in 2021, with an option for an additional year if both parties agreed. His contract runs until the end of June, but talks over an extension have reportedly broken down, making Messi’s departure seem inevitable.
Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez, who is ready to lead his team to the Spanish league title this season, has openly said he wants his former teammate back.
Barcelona is the club closest to the heart of Messi and his family. They moved to Spain in 2001 and Messi scored 672 goals – including an extraordinary league season of 50 goals in 2012 – and won four Champions League trophies with Barcelona amongst a glittering run of silverware.
Barcelona president Joan Laporta is also eager to bring Messi back, but must overcome the club’s heavy debts and restrictions imposed by the Spanish league.
Barcelona’s return to the Champions League could also be affected by an ongoing UEFA investigation into multimillion-dollar payments made over more than a decade to a company linked to a Spanish referee. No evidence of suspected match fixing has yet been found.
Playing in Saudi Arabia would lessen the wear and tear on Messi’s body, while also offering lower-quality matches ahead of World Cup qualification and the 2024 Copa America in the United States, with Argentina defending the title.
Dunbar reported from Geneva.
More AP Soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Adblock test (Why?)